Whose Environment are We Fighting For? — Why the Environmental Movement Frightens Me as an Animal Ally

Harley McDonald-Eckersall
Oct 2 · 7 min read
This chicken wants to know the answer as well Photo Credit: Souvik Pradhan

First off, I want to make it clear. I support the environmental movement. Our world is facing a man-made*** climate catastrophe which is, quite literally, threatening the future of life on earth. A mass movement is absolutely essential in order to challenge the profit-driven motives of large corporations who have created a situation where extinction is a very real possibility for almost all species on earth, humans included. This IS an emergency and, like many people I know, I want to do everything that I can to preserve the future of this earth and the individuals who live on it. However, after being involved in environmental spaces for the past year, I’ve come to the disconcerting realisation that the environmental movement, which I so desperately want to believe in, scares the shit out of me. The reason? Because I fail to see how, in its current incarnation, it can ever fully co-exist with anti-speciesism.

Let me take a step back. First and foremost, I strive to be an ally to the marginalised and oppressed species who share this earth with us, particularly those who are exploited for food, cosmetics, clothing and other human uses. While I consider all social justice causes as being equally deserving of attention and I strive at all times to embrace consistent anti-oppression in my life, decision-making and activism, I believe that, as allies and activists, we often choose to align ourselves with a movement that we feel a particular affinity with. For me that’s anti-speciesism and, for this reason, the interests of exploited species are often at the forefront of my mind, regardless of what spaces I’m in. Given this, when I first entered into environmental activist spaces, it didn’t take long for me to become uneasy.

For starters, although the link between animal agriculture and climate damage is undeniable and climate activists very often preach love and compassion towards all life, I frequently observed animal’s products and, occasionally even their bodies, consumed in these spaces. If the topic arose, I often observed a shift back to the ‘personal choice’ narrative activists in almost all movements are confronted with, and a defensiveness that sometimes bordered on hostility. ‘We’re doing enough,’ people’s actions and words seemed to say. ‘Surely we don’t have to give up our wine and cheese nights and milk chocolate as well!’

The irresistible pull of congealed milk and fermented grapes proves too strong for many Photo Credit: Pixabay

While in my experience this kind of attitude is mainly found within the large scale, non-profit environmental sector, grassroots groups, while generally more politically progressive and diverse on a number of fronts, also seem to frequently throw animals under the bus. In these spaces this is more likely to take the form of ‘freeganism,’ where non-vegan environmentalists justify that it’s ethical to eat anything (or anyone) as long as you didn’t financially contribute to its production. Under this moral code, ‘freegans’ will eat animal flesh and products if they are obtained without a financial transaction taking place, whether that be through dumpster diving, leftover ‘rescued food’ or sometimes even roadkill. Inevitably, the conversation becomes about how eating this way is ethical because it doesn’t financially contribute to environmentally unsustainable industries and it’s often paired with a, 100% just, criticism of capitalism and consumerism.

While these arguments are justified to a certain extent, what it demonstrates to me is that, regardless of what is or is not being eaten, animals other than humans are still considered as bodies and products who are not, and will never be, equal to humans or considered as active participants in their own resistance. I think a good way of highlighting the speciesism of this way of thinking is to question people on whether they would eat ‘free’ flesh if it belonged to a dog, a cat or a human. I think that in almost all cases the answer would be no. In an anti-speciesist movement, the consumption or use of animals is never morally justifiable, merely morally excusable in cases of desperation or necessity. In mainstream environmental movements however, animals are too often seen as passive victims or products whose lives remain dictated by human taste, choice and convenience.

Observing these attitudes and behaviours has definitely been enough to make me uneasy, but it was only recently that I became truly scared by the monolithic environmental movement that’s growing and what it might mean for species exploited by humans. That’s because I became faced with a question, and it’s a question that I can’t see anti-speciesism and mainstream environmentalism ever lining up with. That question is, what happens to all of the animals in our brilliant, environmentally sustainable future? To clarify, some species currently exist at levels that, largely due to human domestication, intervention and massification, are unsustainable. Introduced, genetically modified and domesticated species such as cows, rabbits, sheep and horses have wreaked havoc on their environments both through the increase in emissions generated due to them being bred en masse, the land that has been cleared to make room for said massification and the impacts this has had on native species. These animals, under and anti-speciesist view, are valued, respected and considered worthy of existence, regardless of any harmful impacts they may have on the world.

This is where I start to get afraid because I struggle to see any evidence that the current environmental movement feels the same way. How can a movement that has yet to show any evidence that they see animals as anything other than commodities to be avoided because of their environmental footprint or a part of nature to be protected because of their inherent beauty and wildness have space for the massive number of domesticated, carbon generating, land occupying animals that will remain even if we transition to a 100% plant-based food system. So what would happen to these animals if the environmental movement wins? The possibilities are truly chilling.

A herd of sheep in a paddock
A herd of sheep in a paddock
Could sheep like these become collateral damage? Photo Credit: Matthias Zomer

For a while, I was put at ease by the idea that any massive change would likely happen over a number of years, allowing populations to slowly decrease without the imposition of the kind of culling that is already considered an acceptable response when dealing with species considered ‘pests’ such as wild horses, rabbits and kangaroos. However my ease was short lived as I became confronted with the implications of what it means to declare a climate emergency. To reiterate, I do believe that we are in the midst of an environmental emergency and naming it as such isn’t inherently problematic. However, I can’t escape the fact that when emergency procedures are put in place, the most marginalised are often the ones to suffer. In large part, this is due to the fact that emergency responses often justify acts that would otherwise not be acceptable by society, think of how if someone killed someone in self-defense it would be acceptable or how society often excuses civilian casualties in wartime with the rationale that what is being done if for the greater good. In an emergency, we don’t wait for gradual change, we act swiftly and decisively to stamp out what is considered the problem. What then does this mean for animals who are, due to no fault of their own, part of the problem rather than the solution to our climate catastrophe?

Of course, this is not representative of the entire movement and there are many environmental groups that make a concerted effort to centre and champion animals in their activism. Groups including Climate Save and Vegan Rising have shown a dedication to ensuring the rights of animals are kept at the forefront of the conversation as the environmental movement gains momentum and the possibility of it creating real change becomes more and more realistic. However, it’s not enough to only highlight the impact of animal agriculture on the climate emergency, which is often the only animal inclusive topic of conversation that is accepted in environmental spaces. As well as sharing this important information, we need to maintain our role as strong allies for exploited and marginalised species, representing them in spaces they cannot be in and ensuring their interests are considered as this movement grows. We can never forget that all beings matter beyond their impact on this world and that when we begin to see anyone as the sum of their parts this inevitably leads to de-personification, something which often justifies abhorrent acts. While massive change is needed to save our planet and we can and should fight for it, we can’t let revolution for some lead to oppression for others.

I am scared about what the future may hold for ‘unwanted’ animals. I am scared by the extremes people might feel we need to go to to fix our mistakes. But I know that this fear is the same reason that I need to stick with this movement. Because if we stop questioning, challenging and otherwise wreaking havoc then there’s the risk that our movements for liberation will become new systems of tyranny.

*** I would usually use the gender-neutral human-made rather than man-made however I think it’s important to remember that the current state of the earth has largely been caused by the actions of white, cis-het men and that resistance to the damage being done has primarily been led by woman, queer and non-binary folk and people of colour.

Harley McDonald-Eckersall

Written by

Activist, ally and anti-speciesist. Doing my best in an imperfect world and constantly in awe of the inspiring people I see fighting for liberation.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade